For parents on the fence about vaccines

This essay is for parents who are torn. They want to protect their kids from disease, but are extremely worried about the possible bad side effects of vaccines, and they are not sure whether or not to take those risks.

That was me, when my oldest kids were young. I was torn. I trusted my doctor about some things, but not others; and I knew the diseases in question were dangerous, but the possible side effects also seemed very dangerous.

Every time we went to the doctor, I had to make the choice over whether or not to vaccinate; and every time we went, I was overwhelmed by all the bad things that might happen if we did.

So we got some of the vaccines, but not all. Sometimes I would cry almost as much as the kids, when they got their shots. If I was especially torn, I would take the safer, neutral route and just decline. I couldn’t get myself to choose things that might turn out to be dangerous, so I just opted out of choosing. The choice was too awful, so I decided not to make it. It just seemed safer that way.

Now we all get all the recommended vaccines. I am still aware of the possible risks of some vaccines, and I’m not happy about them; but I’m no longer torn.

What changed? I sure wish I could remember. All I recall is that, one day, it became crystal clear to me that, no matter what I did, I was making a choice. When I said “no” to certain vaccines, I was making a choice. When I told the doctor I’d rather opt out, I was making a choice.

There was no safe, neutral middle ground in opting out. When I decided to opt out of vaccines, I wasn’t perching safely on a fence, avoiding possible dangers and perils and ruin on both sides. When I decided to opt out, I was choosing a side with very real possible dangers and perils and ruin. Opting out didn’t feel like a choice, because I wasn’t doing anything. But it was a choice all the same, because disease is real. It was a choice, and my choice had consequences for my children and for the community.

It wasn’t like piercing ears, where I could decide the risks were too great, and simply leave those ears alone. It wasn’t like going on a roller coaster, where I could decide the risks were too great, and simply step out of line and go about my day. It was more like being aware that people are occasionally injured by seat belts, and choosing to opt out of strapping my kids in when I drove. This is not a neutral act, even though I’m not doing anything. Deciding not to vaccinate meant that I was making a choice to expose my kids to serious diseases that could maim or kill them.

And I was making that choice for other people, too. My kids are, for the most part, strong and healthy, and have a very low risk of adverse reactions to vaccines. We’re not immunocompromised, we’re not getting chemo, and we don’t have allergies. We are in a group medically fragile depend on (and one of my children is now medically fragile, too). When I told myself I was taking the safe, neutral route by opting out of vaccines, I was really making a choice about the health and safety of other people — friends, family, strangers, kids at the playground, old women at Mass, the fragile child at the supermarket. Children like my child.

Now, if my doctor introduces a new vaccine, I read as much about it as I can from reputable sources, before I decide which choice to make. I talk to people whose judgment I have good reason to trust. And this includes the Pontifical Academy for Life.  CNS’ Cindy Wooden reports the academy said in 2017 there is a “moral obligation to guarantee the vaccination coverage necessary for the safety of others.”

Now when I take my kids to the doctor, I consider the possible consequences of getting each vaccine, and I also consider the possible consequences of not getting it — the consequences for my kids, for my family, and for the community, especially the vulnerable — and I ask myself if I’m willing to take responsibility for making that choice.

There really isn’t any such thing as opting out from this choice.  It’s our duty to take responsibility for the choice we make, to see clearly what we are choosing. If we choose not to vaccinate, we’re freely choosing to expose our kids and the wider community to diseases that can maim or kill. There isn’t such a thing as remaining neutral.


Image: CDC/ Amanda Mills acquired from Public Health Image Library (Website) (public domain)

Anti-vaccine talk cancelled at Catholic Church

A Catholic New Hampshire parish announced plans to sponsor an anti-vaccine speech, then abruptly cancelled it after protest from parish staff and other laymen.

Ste. Marie in Manchester, NH announced last week they’d be hosting a talk called “Vaccine Inflation” by Jenna Pedone, who describes herself as “a Registered Pharmacist for 20+ years with experience in retail pharmacy and pharmaceutical sales [who] has for over two years vigorously studied and reviewed vaccine science and ingredients as a concerned parent and healthcare professional.”

Pedone said she “studied under Dr. Sherry [sic] Tenpenny in her Mastering Vaccine Info course in 2018.”

Dr. Sherri Tenpenny is an osteopath who believes vaccines cause autism, food allergies, and speech impediments. She advocates a total refusal of vaccines and antibiotics. Tenpenny rejects germ theory and has no specialized training in infectious diseases, immunology or microbiology. When Gabrielle Giffords was shot, Tenpenny blamed vaccines.

The “Mastering Vaccine” course she offers, which consists of a series of online “modules,” explicitly promises to train participants to influence others in their churches to reject vaccines.

As a Catholic, I was alarmed to see the church sponsoring what was clearly going to be an anti-vaccine presentation marketed as information for “prolife Catholics.” The graphic Pedone provided for her speech shows pills marked with five-dollar bills.

Although vaccines are not administered in pill form, the image suggests that vaccines are promoted for financial reasons. I contacted Pedone for more information on the content of her speech. She told me:

I want to empower Catholics young and old to do their OWN research, trust their gut, believe in the immune system God have them. I was initially struck by something my pastor said about no boys being ordained this year in our diocese. It prompted me to email him sharing what I have researched about how vaccines are destroying our boys brains and how at the rate we are vaccinating, 1 in 2 boys will be autistic by 2030 so who will run our churches? Who will father our children and grandchildren? I want people to leave the talk feeling empowered that they don’t need a medical degree to learn about vaccines and health for their family and grandparents.

Pedone is apparently referring to a 2014 claim by a “senior research scientist at MIT” that half of all children will be autistic by 2025.

The scientist in question, Stephanie Seneff, is trained in computer science and has no training in epidemiology. She made her startling claims about autism based the assumption that correlation is causation, and that trends will always continue at the same rate.

But the rate of autism spectrum disorder diagnoses is not increasing. It has stabilized in recent years in the US, and most researchers believe that the apparent increase in autism in the past decade was due to improvements in diagnoses, and not to an increase in actual cases. In other words, it’s likely that more children do not have autism these days; we have simply become better at understanding what autism is and at recognizing it.

No study has ever established a causal connection between vaccines and autism. Countless studies have looked for and found no causal connection.

Moreover, boys with autism can and do grow up to father children and become priests.

Pedone said when she proposed making her speech at Ste. Marie, she did not speak to the pastor directly, but she had spoken to his secretary. Pedone said the secretary “was open to people seeing the information of which vaccines contain fetal DNA. People can learn and then make their own determination.”

No vaccines contain fetal DNA. Some vaccines are produced using cell lines derived from fetal tissue. Researchers have debunked reports suggesting that vaccines produced from fetal cell lines are “tainted.”

But even if these vaccines are safe, are they ethical, since they are derived from cell lines obtained through abortion? Pedone said that her speech would include “what to know as a prolife Catholic if you are going to follow the CDC recommended vaccine schedule.”

The Church has issued a statement about what pro-life Catholics need to know before they vaccinate:

The Church has asked us to protest against the practice of producing vaccines using cell lines derived from fetal tissue, to demand ethical vaccine production, and to ask for ethical alternatives if they are available; but the Pontifical Academy for Life has said it is ethical to use these vaccines. It says that doctors and parents who use vaccines produced unethically participate only in “a form of very remote mediate material cooperation” with the evil of abortion. Another example of remote mediate material cooperation is paying taxes as a citizen of a large country which may use some miniscule portion of that money to fund some unethical activity.

The National Catholic Bioethics Center says:

One is morally free to use the vaccine regardless of its historical association with abortion. The reason is that the risk to public health, if one chooses not to vaccinate, outweighs the legitimate concern about the origins of the vaccine. This is especially important for parents, who have a moral obligation to protect the life and health of their children and those around them.


There would seem to be no proper grounds for refusing immunization against dangerous contagious disease, for example, rubella, especially in light of the concern that we should all have for the health of our children, public health, and the common good.

After I talked to Pedone, I contacted Ste. Marie to ask for more information about the speech. On Wednesday, Fr. Moe Larochelle called me to say that the talk had been cancelled, and that the cancellation would be announced in the bulletin and at Mass.

He said that he did authorize the speech, but at the time, he was not aware of how much controversy surrounds vaccines.

“Jenna [Pedone] presented it as if she were just giving information, so people could decide for themselves,” he said.

Once he became aware that the topic was much more controversial than he realized, he decided to simply cancel the speech, since there wasn’t enough time to organize a speaker who could present an opposing point of view. He said the parish did not want to create the impression that they were promoting any particular point of view.

He said that, in the future, if someone proposes giving a presentation on the topic, especially since it involves bioethics, the parish will handle it as they would handle a political presentation. “Now that I know, before I do anything, I’ll call the diocese,” he said.

Tom Bebbington, Director of Communication for the Diocese of Manchester, said that the diocese does not routinely give pastors or parishes guidelines about what kind of talks or presentations can be sponsored by the parish.

Bebbington said “there is no process for those invited by pastors/parish staff to speak in parishes. The concern is that it would too much for us to handle, especially for seasonal missions in parishes (e.g., Lent).”

The number of unvaccinated children in the US has quadrupled since 2001, and recent outbreaks of chickenpox, pertussis, measles, Hib, and pneumococcal disease have been traced back to vaccine refusal. Non-medical exemptions for vaccines, including religious exemptions, are on the rise in many states.

Our pastors are responsible for keeping abreast of innumerable kinds of information, and they may need our help in understanding how fraught the topic of vaccines is, and how much dangerously flawed information, both medical and ethical, is being circulated about the topic.

The “Vaccine Inflation” talk at Ste. Marie’s was cancelled because staff at the church and a number of concerned parishioners understood how problematic the upcoming speech would be, and they were able to dissuade him from allowing it to appear that the Church sanctions the ideas the talk contained. All educated Catholics who understand the importance of vaccines, for individual health and for the safety of the community, should ready to do the same.

Just as Catholics have an obligation to push for the production of more ethical vaccines and the obligation to protect the vulnerable from preventable diseases, we have an obligation to be vigilant, guarding our local parishes from even the appearance of condoning pseudo-science and pseudo-ethics. We must be well informed about our medical and ethical responsibility surrounding vaccines, and we must be prepared to speak up when dangerously erroneous information makes its way into our communities, especially under the guise of pro-life concerns.